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The development and evolution of Caribbean coral reef islands (Advert Reference: RDF20/EE/GES/EAST)

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Friday, January 24, 2020
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

Coral reef islands are low-lying (<3 m above mean sea level) accumulations of sediment produced by organisms living within the surrounding coral reef and seagrass habitats. They provide numerous ecosystem services, both ecological and socioeconomic, to some of the world’s poorest countries. However, due to their dependence upon locally generated sediment and low elevations, reef islands are frequently perceived to be among the most vulnerable environments to climate change, particularly to sea-level rise.

In order to improve predictions of how reef islands may respond to future environmental change, it is important to understand how they have responded to past environmental changes, including in sea level. Our understanding of reef island evolution is improving for the Indian and Pacific Oceans, but remains severely limited for the Caribbean. This knowledge gap is pertinent as the Caribbean region has its own unique sea level history, which means lessons learned from other regions are unlikely to apply.

The project will answer key research questions, including: How and when did reef island formation occur? What are the key controls on reef island evolution? Which organisms on the adjacent coral reefs are most important for reef island building? What is the degree of reef-to-island connectivity?

You will reconstruct the evolution of reef islands (sand cays) in Honduras. You will undertake marine ecological surveys to determine the degree of reef-to-island connectivity. The project will involve both geomorphological and ecological analyses, including of island morphology, core records and marine ecology. You will undertake fieldwork in collaboration with Operation Wallacea at their marine site in Honduras.

The supervisory team will include Dr Holly East (Northumbria University), Dr Emma Hocking (Northumbria University), Dr James Guest (Newcastle University), Dr Dan Exton (Operation Wallacea), and Dr Pauline Gulliver (SUERC, University of Glasgow). Funding will cover a minimum of two field seasons.

The principal supervisor for this project is Dr Holly East. The second supervisor will be Dr Vasile Ersek.

Eligibility and How to Apply:

Please note eligibility requirement:
• Academic excellence of the proposed student i.e. 2:1 (or equivalent GPA from non-UK universities [preference for 1st class honours]); or a Masters (preference for Merit or above); or APEL evidence of substantial practitioner achievement.
• Appropriate IELTS score, if required.
• Applicants cannot apply for this funding if currently engaged in Doctoral study at Northumbria or elsewhere.

For further details of how to apply, entry requirements and the application form, see

Please note: Applications that do not include a research proposal of approximately 1,000 words (not a copy of the advert), or that do not include the advert reference (e.g. RDF20/EE/GES/EAST) will not be considered.

Deadline for applications: Friday 24 January 2020

Start Date: 1 October 2020

Northumbria University takes pride in, and values, the quality and diversity of our staff. We welcome applications from all members of the community. The University holds an Athena SWAN Bronze award in recognition of our commitment to improving employment practices for the advancement of gender equality.

Funding Notes

The studentship is available to Home/EU/ Worldwide students where a full stipend, paid for three years at RCUK rates (for 2019/20, this is £15,009 pa) and full fees.


East, H. K., Perry, C. T., Kench, P. S., Liang, Y., & Gulliver, P. (2018). Coral reef island initiation and development under higher than present sea levels. Geophysical Research Letters, 45(20), 11-265.

East, H. K., Perry, C. T., Beetham, E., Kench, P. S. & Liang, Y. (in review). Modelling reef hydrodynamics and sediment mobility under sea level rise in atoll reef island systems. Global and Planetary Change

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